A `Saint Joan' With Passion

The National Actors Theatre triumphs at last with solid acting in the Shaw classic

SAINT JOAN Play by George Bernard Shaw. Directed by Michael Langham. At the Lyceum Theatre through March 14.

THE National Actors Theatre (NAT), in its second season on Broadway, has come up with its strongest and most consistent production yet with the revival of George Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan." Starring company mainstay Maryann Plunkett and directed by artistic adviser Michael Langham, it demonstrates that this maligned company may more than live up to its potential.

The chief problem with the NAT has been the wildly uneven nature of the acting. This production, the first to dispense with an imported guest star, does not suffer from that problem.

From Ms. Plunkett's solidly professional work to the supporting performances by such ringers as Remak Ramsay, John Neville, and Jay O. Sanders, there is no major fault to be found. Director Langham, a veteran of the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and the Stratford Festival in Ontario, knows how to create the feeling of a seamless ensemble.

Shaw's play about the martyred saint is one of his more turgid efforts, but it glistens in the scenes depicting the social and political machinations that bring about Joan of Arc's downfall. The scene between the Earl of Warwick and the Chaplain de Stogumber, the speech by the Inquisitor, the trial scene, the final excursion into the surreal in the epilogue - all demonstrate the Shavian wit and illustrate that this play is less about Joan than it is about the forces surrounding her. Its depiction of bure aucratic blindness and religious hypocrisy have more than a few modern-day parallels.

These scenes require actors of sophistication to pull them off, and Langham has found them in spades. Mr. Neville, as the sly Earl of Warwick, is a marvel of malevolence. This actor, long one of the acting glories of the Stratford Festival, should be immediately recruited to perform in every production here. Other standouts include the robust Mr. Sanders as the stalwart Dunois, who shares the battlefield with Joan; Mr. Ramsay, as the blustery Chaplain de Stogumber, horrified at Joan's heresy; and Nichola s Kepros, whose performance of the Inquisitor's speech is a model of restraint, elegance, and chilling subtext. Also notable are Lorne Kennedy as Brother Martin Ladvenu, who pleads with Joan to save herself; Louis Tureene as the calculating Bishop of Beauvais; and Michael Stughbarg as the Dauphin. But there are no major missteps among any of the performers.

Plunkett brings her usual blend of intelligence and sensitivity to her role. But if the actress captures Joan's passion and vulnerability, she is less effective in conveying her steeliness and fanaticism. We never quite believe that her Joan is hearing inner voices. It is a tremulous performance, making it sometimes hard to accept the hysteria that is created around her. She is best in the trial scene, in which she touchingly portrays Joan's anguish at failing to find the means to save herself.

Even the visual aspects of this production seem superior to past NAT efforts, particularly Richard Nelson's moody lighting, which effectively accents the script's foreboding. If Langham can keep things up to this level of quality, the National Actors Theatre will be well on its way toward fulfilling its noble ambition of presenting classics of the world theater in repertory.

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